Sunday, 17 June 2018

I wish I could speak French just like I can play piano

I talk a lot on Facebook about my inability to speak French.  It's not from a lack of technical ability, but from a lack of comfort in speaking French out loud.  A lot of well meaning people try to tell me that I "should just try" and that "it doesn't matter if you make a few mistakes" but that's missing the point, unfortunately.

Comfort in doing something is not always directly proportional to technical ability.  For some people, they can head over to France after a few lessons and take delight in ordering in a restaurant or buying something in a shop.  That's just not how I'm wired, and it's not something I'm ever going to be able to do.

Or so I thought.

Something struck me the other day whilst I was playing the piano.  We recently bought a piano for the house - I know, cool, eh? - and I quite often wander into the music room and plonk myself down and play and sing a couple of songs whilst waiting for dinner to cook in the Aga.

My piano playing isn't technically very good at all.  The truth is that I never learned to play the piano at school.  I started off, as most people do, playing the recorder.  It's not the most pleasant sound, especially when played too hard and with slightly wobbly fingering by a group of enthusiastic five-year-olds.  As I went through school, I moved from the recorder to the violin when I moved to secondary school.  Just like with the recorder, the sound of a solo violin isn't great when it's screechy and the finger placement isn't completely accurate.

After a couple of years of screeching away, I could make a nice enough noise to get away with it in the school orchestra, but even in the small ensemble at the school concerts, there was a sound to my playing not entirely unlike fingernails being dragged down a blackboard.

My passion had always lain in playing the keyboard.  From as early an age I could remember, I'd had a Casio keyboard and then when my Mum moved into her new house just around the corner from my secondary school, she bought me an upright piano.

From then on I had little interest in playing the violin.  My lunchtimes would be spent in the school music room playing on the pianos there, and even in the school concerts, I started to give my mandatory solo performances on the grand piano in the school hall rather than on the violin I was supposed to be learning to play.

Despite all that, I've never taken any Associated Board Grades for piano.  I did for violin, but for piano I just taught myself to play more and more complex things, and never really worried about the technical aspects of playing.

And I still don't.  I could probably just about muddle my way through Grade I on piano these days, and probably get Grade II or III with a bit of practice, but above that boredom would kick in before I learned the set pieces.

And yet, despite the fact that my piano playing is technical ropey, I thoroughly enjoy playing, and I'm happy to play and even sing in front of other people.  The idea of singing in front of people is for many people the epitome of terror, but I don't mind it.  Despite the fact I'm not particularly great.

I mean, I can hold a tune, and I can play piano well enough to get across the accompaniment for a well-known tune.  But I'm not going to win The Voice or even BGT anytime soon.

And yet, I have a fluency when I play the piano.  I feel the emotion and feel of what I'm trying to play rather than worrying about the individual notes.  As long as I keep time, and play something which captures the piece, then I don't feel that the individual notes matter so much.  I even make mistakes, but I just carry on and nobody notices.  Playing the piano makes me happy as much as speaking French makes me anxious.

I wish I could find that attitude when it comes to speaking French...

Friday, 29 December 2017

Going to Saturn to see the ducks

I had a fun dream the other night.  We had gone on a day trip to Saturn to see the ducks.  The leg room was cramped on the flight, but we landed in the Asda car park and took the stairs down onto the expanse of orange and yellow that was a Saturnian wetland.  The ducks looked pretty much like earth ducks, and bobbed in and out of the water.

The landscape was full of strange flowers and focus, and we were admiring and photographing a green mushroom when a giant whale began to swim towards us through the water.  However as it got closer, it wasn't a whale.  It was just more ducks.

So we took the optional excursion around to the dark side of the planet so you could see up into the night sky.  And when we got there, we looked up and saw the Earth and the Moon glittering with a million lights in the distance.

It was magical, but soon had to come to an end when we followed the tour guide back to the cramped seats on the bus and got ready to go home.

In the morning I woke disappointed in myself.  It wasn't so much the fact that there was an Asda on Saturn, nor the fact that there's no chance you'd be able to see flickering lightbulbs on earth from Saturn.  Nor the fact that Saturn doesn't have a surface you could walk on, and isn't really within a day's journey of home for a quick trip.

No.  What bothered me was the fact that my brain had taken a trip to the dark side of the planet to see Earth.  From Saturn, you'll never been able to see Earth by looking away from the sun.

But then again last night I did dream that I was on a commuter train into London and Oti Mabuse was selling the train tickets.  However, I got chatting to her about Strictly and she forgot to give me my ticket, and so I had to talk my way out of the station when I arrived in London.

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

What's wrong with being comfortable?

I like a good sofa.  A nice big sofa which is squishy enough to mould itself to my shape as I relax on it and yet not so soft as to let my back slip into a position that's going to cause me grief when I stand up.

I've been sitting on sofas for a lot of my adult life, and never once has someone suggested to me that I should try sitting on something less comfortable in order that I see what it feels like, and maybe expand my definition of comfort.

And yet, there seems to be an obsession with "getting outside ones comfort zone" as reason enough to do things wouldn't normally do - even to spend vast sums of money on them. 

Some people thrive on a thrill.  Those are the people who enjoy the adrenaline rush of jumping out of a plane, or sticking their hands above their head on a roller coaster and enjoying the feeling of being upside down flying through the air.

However, not everyone is wired that way. 

I've been on roller coasters in the past, and they don't really do much for me.  I get the adrenaline rush as you'd expect, but it's not a high I enjoy.  I don't get particularly scared on roller coasters, I just don't get much out of them and so tend not to bother.  Fairgrounds aren't somewhere I enjoy spending a lot of time.

I've had friends who've jumped out of planes and say it's a wonderful experience, which I don't doubt. But it's definitely not for me; of that I'm certain.

And yet there are people who seem obsessed with the idea that everyone needs to get outside their comfort zone.  Apparently we can only grow as people if we do things we're not comfortable with.  Frankly, I can't be bothered with that.

Don't get me wrong, I enjoy learning new things, I enjoy seeing new places and I enjoy garnering new skills - but I do so quite happily from within the confines of being comfortable.

The idea that thrilling things are pleasurable is so prevalent that I do wonder whether I'm in the minority.  People go on holiday and throw themselves off bridges attached to elastic, whereas I'm quite happy to just stand on the bridge and drink in the beauty of the view.  I don't need to throw myself off a boat into the sea to understand how blue it is, nor do I need to go and join in with a group of dancers in order to enjoy watching them dance.

In recent years I've come to realise that I'm a watcher rather than a participator.  I'm quite happy to it on the sidelines and enjoy what other people are doing rather than feel the need to be part of it myself. I naturally learn by watching rather than by trying.

Admitted this affect how I learn new things.  The most obvious example is that I enjoy learning French by reading and by learning the theory; I'm not someone who's naturally at home trying it out and learning by my mistakes.  You've no idea how frustrating it is that whenever I'm at social event and there's a French person present, people keep telling me I "should practice my French".

I maintain that it's absolutely possible to learn and grow without leaving your comfort zone.   And if I'm happy within my comfort zone, I don't understand why other are so concerned with needing to encourage me to step outside of it.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

TV or not TV, that is the question

I don't watch much TV, really.

Well that's certainly whatever I say whenever anyone asks me which TV shows I watch.  I've never watched Breaking Bad or the new Netflix version of House of Cards.  I didn't watch Dr Foster or Broadchurch and I've given up on reality shows like The Apprentice and I'm A Celebrity which were an interesting idea for the first series, but must now just be the same old narrative played out with a new cast each year.

I do watch a few things, though.  A few years ago I wrote about how I was getting bored with Doctor Who and I'm happy to report that I did rather start to enjoy Peter Capaldi's time in the TARDIS and so I'm in no danger of losing my "regular viewer" status just yet.  I'm quite excited about Jodie Whittaker taking over, but maybe that's a good topic to save for a post of its own? ;-)

I tend to find that my viewing habits tend to shift over time.  Many shows run on long past the point than they have anything new to say and as soon as I start to feel my interest waning, I tend to walk away.  That certainly happened with Big Brother, Gogglebox and The X-Factor many years ago.

But whilst some TV shows disappear from my habits, a couple have crept in over the past few years.

I had never watched Strictly Come Dancing.  Dancing as an art-form holds little or no appeal for me, and I never, ever go on the dance floor at weddings or parties.  And I wasn't sure what appeal would be held by a show in which celebrities dance around every Saturday night.  At first I started as most Strictly-watchers seem to - by watching the Hallowe'en special where it's all rock music and layers of black velvet and sinister-looking lace.  Slowly I got drawn in.

At its heart, Strictly is a positive show in the way that X-Factor isn't.  Despite my best efforts, we caught a little bit of the latest series of X-Factor and it seems to be simply an exercise in taking (mostly young) people, building up their hopes, flying them halfway across the world and then crushing their dreams in front of a TV camera whilst their only consolation is a brief hug with Dermot and a phone call home to their family on a sponsored mobile phone (all filmed for broadcast of course).

It's true that negative feedback is given on Strictly, but even from Craig it's always given with a sense of humour and a flicker of positivity.  The criticism is always about the dancing and whether or not they have mastered the technique.  There is no criticism of the person themselves - whatever their gender, body shape, physical ability - it's all about telling them how well they are doing at learning to dance, and encouraging them to continue to get better at dancing.

In a sense, the actual dancing is largely irrelevant.  I don't find dance a particular moving expression of emotion (note 1) but what I do find moving is to see people learning a new skill, and enjoying the process of learning.  Although it's a competition, there seems to be a genuine will amongst the competitors for everyone to do their best, and the losers are almost always gracious (note 2).

There's no way Strictly will ever get me to learn to dance or even venture onto a dance floor at a wedding (note 3) but we've even started recording It Takes Two with Zoë Ball every evening to get into the mood for Saturday.

But that's not the only daily dose of TV.  A few years ago, we started to watch "8 Out Of 10 Cats Does Countdown" and it acted as a bridge from the former to the latter.  The former had started to suffer from the curse of repetition and taking the humour into the context of Countdown seemed like fun; it even allowed Susie Dent and Rachel Riley to say the rude things that they seemed as though they'd always been wanting to say (note 4).  But it wasn't long after we started to watch that when it became obvious that the attraction was in the "Countdown" rather than the "Cats" and the thrill of seeing Susie Dent look up rude words in the dictionary sore wore off when compared with the thrill of sometimes getting a nine letter word.

Eventually, it got to the point that if we turned on to watch the "Cats..." version and it was one we'd already seen (note 5) then we're go to 4oD and find a recent episode of real Countdown to watch.  Slowly but surely we got hooked.  The childhood innate ability to do the numbers game (note 6) started to come back to me, and it became a daily challenge.  We've seen every episode for the past year or so.

When I was growing up, my Granny (who I wrote about here) used to watch Countdown every day and became renowned in the family for using the pause button on the VHS machine to give herself extra time in the numbers round.  Much as I used to gently rib her at the time, we have developed a similar habit - although in our defence we don't add up our scores.

If we haven't got the numbers within the 30 seconds, we hit pause.  If we haven't got it within another minute or two, we run it to the point where Rachel says whether it's possible.  If she says "this one is impossible" then we carry on with the show.

If however, she says "leave it with me" or starts to write up a solution, we hit the pause button and sit there until it's done.  Sometimes it ends up with pen and paper.  Only one solution has eluded us in the year we've been doing it.

And so that's it.  That's the extent of my TV watching.  I may sometimes stumble on Homes Under the Hammer at the weekend, or sit through an episode of Four In A Bed whilst doing the ironing of a Sunday, or whatever the latest Lucy Worsley thing on BBC Four is about - but don't bother trying to talk to me about the latest drama "everyone is watching" as you may soon discover that not everyone is watching it...


1 - I am a sucker for a good Paso or Argentine Tango, but most of the other dances leave me a bit cold emotionally.  And the Rumba - they go on about it being the "hardest dance to do..." but it seems pointless; largely it seems like it's just strutting around in small circles with straight legs.

2 - Except Brendan Cole.  I'm sure they only keep inviting him back because it supposedly makes interesting TV, but I find his humourless bickering with the judges very tiresome.  At least Anton Du Beke manages to defend his dance partner with a bit of humour rather than just coming across as arrogant and grumpy.

3 - There's a whole blog post in this. I've written one already but there's a lot more to say on the subject about my reasons for not dancing, and why I'm very resistant to anyone trying to persuade me.

4 - If you haven't already, I recommend looking for Countdown outtakes and Susie Dent's guide to swearing on YouTube.  Neither is safe for work, but worth a look on your phone.

5 - I'm sure when I was young(er) that TV guides used to be explicit when a TV show in the listings was a repeat.  When did they stop doing that?

6 - Doing the numbers game quickly can look like voodoo if you're not the kind of person who can throw numbers around quickly, but actually getting the solution quickly is a fairly formulaic thing - well for me, anyway.  Maybe I should write a post on how to do the numbers game.  Even the infamous really hard numbers game actually begins to look at a lot less mysterious if you think about bracketing.  It's all about bracketing really.  But that's another blog post.

Friday, 6 October 2017

Musical dreams - am I cool or what?

I've heard it said that dreams can say a lot about someone, so what do you make of the dream I had last night..?

I was booked to go with a couple of friends to see Noel Gallagher and Jarvis Cocker performing together in concert.  That's cool, right?

Getting to our seats was quite complicated, and I kept taking the wrong staircase and couldn't find the way to the seat (hmmm).  Eventually I got to the seat only to find that before they came on stage, there was a chemistry lecture, which we sat through with interest.  Once it was over, it was time for the main gig, but I was a bit tired, so decided that the lecture was enough entertainment for the evening and went home instead.

But all was not lost, as both Noel and Jarvis had agreed to perform the following day in a musical that I'd written.  So that was cool.  

Cut to the following day.

The venue was split over two rooms.  There was a room set up like a club for people to get warmed up before the show, and then the room with the stage in where the musical was going to happen.  All was set, and it was very exciting.

Except at the last minute, the estate of the author of the book on which the musical was based said they weren't happy with the changes to the story we'd made in order to fit the Oasis and Pulp songs into the narrative.  And so we had to huddle with some lawyers and try to rewrite the story at the last minute to try to satisfy the author's estate whilst still keep the narrative.  This took some time and all the people waiting for the show got board, and so I plugged in a drum machine and played 80s cheesy songs from my phone with a thumping drum beat over the top to try to keep them amused.  It didn't work; they all packed up and went home.

And so we were sat huddled on the floor rewriting the musical, and went into some detail about the legalities of what we were and were not allowed to change from the original text.  By the time we finished, the club room was empty and dark, and we walked through to the auditorium to find that it was one o'clock in the morning and Noel and Jarvis had gone home bored.

And then I woke up.

Neither Noel nor Jarvis actually appeared in my dream at all.  The only conclusion I can draw from this is that I'm actually a very dull person, that I'd rather dream about legal matters than watch Noel Gallagher and Jarvis cocker performing together. 

Oh well.  That's middle age for you, I guess.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

The Theatre

Today I had an operation on my finger.  Let's not get too carried away with the seriousness of the operation, it was something very simple and the length of the operation itself was measured in minutes rather than hours.  It was only the second time I've ever had an operation; the previous one was to remove all my wisdom teeth and was done under a general anaesthetic.

And so today I was just having a local - more on that in a minute - which gave me an opportunity I may never get again - the chance to actually see inside an operating theatre and talk to the surgeon whilst he's poking around inside my finger.

My contact with the medical professional has been thankfully quite sporadic throughout my life.  That's not due to any stereotypical male reluctance to go and see a doctor but simply due to good fortune meaning that serious medical conditions have thus far eluded me.  It was the first time I'd had those arrows drawn on in marker that you see on the TV when the surgeon is reminding himself which bit to chop away at...

I was amazed, for instance, that temperature isn't taken by sticking a thermometer in your mouth anymore.  Only hours after marvelling at such wonderful devices did I Google to find that mercury medical thermometers have been unavailable to buy in the UK for eight years.

The last time I went into an operating theatre I was unconscious, but this time I just walked in and plonked myself down on the bed in the middle under the lights.  I stuck my arm out on the little board at the side for the purpose and turned my head so I could watch what the surgeon was doing.  It's amazing how many people have had a physical reaction at the thought that I'd watch what he was doing whilst he was cutting into my finger and poking around inside, but it was an opportunity I wasn't going to miss.

The second thing, after the thermometer, to astound me were the LED lights which despite being three feet above me, were so powerful that I could feel the heat on my hand where they were directed.  I was surprised that LEDs could do that.

Just before starting, the surgeon said to me - "Right, this first bit is going to be the worst part of your day by a mile".  Then he gave me the local anaesthetic injections into the base of my finger.   Usually, whenever you get an injection, the doctor will say "you'll just feel a small scratch".  This has irritated me for years now, as I've had quite a few injections and blood tests done, so they could say "this will feel like a needle going in" and I'd know exactly what to expect.  But it was noteworthy that this time around he didn't say that; he explicitly told me it was going to hurt. A lot.

I'd had previous experience of this when, a few years ago, I'd had a series of steroid injections into my elbow after a bout of tennis elbow.  I asked the GP before he did it - "will this hurt?".  His reply: "Do you want the truth or do you want me to tell you it won't hurt?".

That first steroid injection made my arm feel like it was on fire, but was still nothing compared with the pain of having anaesthetic injected deep at the base of my finger.   I'm sure it doesn't compare with childbirth - the usual benchmark of just how painful things can get - but it sure wasn't pleasant.  But once my wincing at the initial pain had subsided, the surgeon then said - "now your finger will feel like it's going to explode." and he was right.

I find anaesthetic quite intriguing.  I've had local anaesthetic before for dental work (nowhere near as painful as this) but never had an entire finger numbed.  There was something rather surreal about watching him cut open the side of my finger and poke about inside whilst not being able to feel anything at all.  It made it feel like it wasn't my finger, in some strange sense.   Once the surgery was over, and before the anaesthetic had worn off, I tried a few experiments.

Don't worry, I didn't try stabbing myself or anything.  The most interesting was to rest four fingers from that hand on the table.  Although all four fingers were on the table, the lack of feeling from my ring finger made it feel like it wasn't on the table; even if I looked directly at my hand, my brain was telling me that my ring finger was lifted on the table.  It just goes to show that our sense of where parts of our body are in relation to each other relies as much on exteroception as it does on proprioception.

Today brought into focus that fact that I know very little about biology and anatomy in comparison with my knowledge of say physics or chemistry.  The surgeon simply pulled the two sides of the wound together and effectively tied them together.  Remarkably quickly, they'll stick themselves together and within weeks, there'll be relatively little sign that the skin had ever been rent apart.  I have genuinely no idea how that process works at all.  I know there's something to do with collagen being laid down as a framework on which cells are then placed, but how does the body "know" that there's work to be done?  How does it know the skin needs repair at that point?

The evolutionary advantages of self-healing are so obvious that it's no surprise that such a complex process exists, but what were the evolutionary steps on the way?  The ability to completely repair a hole in the skin wouldn't have popped out of nowhere in a (metaphorical) instant.

I didn't feel I could ask the surgeon that, but beforehand he did ask me whether I would rather he describe what he's doing, or whether I'd rather not know.  Of course I wanted to know.  It was like having my own documentary about the inside of the end of a finger.  Except it was the most personal documentary in the world because I was the only one watching and it was my finger. How cool is that?

You'd think it'd be hard to relax then there's a man prodding about in your finger with metal things, but actually I found it relaxing enough to even attempt some humour...

"I've put a dressing on your finger, but it's not very well attached so if it falls off when you get back to your room, ask the nurse for another one"

"I presume you mean the dressing not the finger..?"

The reply was a dead pan "Yes. That is correct"

At least he said it with a smile ;-)

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Room 101

I hold myself account to a rule of being only positive online, but I'm going to allow myself one post on here which is slightly more negative.

Recently, I've caught a few episodes of Room 101 and it got me thinking what I'd banish to Room 101 if I had the chance.  Picking things such as "poverty" or "war" would be very worthy but would frankly say very little about me and given that this is all but artifice, there seems like utility in picking things so important.

So forgive me a little indulgence , and here are the ten things I'd banish to Room 101 and remove from the world if I could.

1. People who get in the way

Maybe this particular choice is what inspired the whole post, as I did get inwardly quite wound up by a woman in Boots last night who was aimlessly wandering the aisles wearing a a large backpack, wearing headphones and eating a banana oblivious to all the people she was blocking from walking past.

But it's not just in Boots; pretty much everywhere will people think nothing of stopping immediately atop an escalator to "have a bit of a think about which direction to go" or choose the most obstructive place possible in the supermarket to gather with their trolleys and "have a bit of a chat".

...or my particular pet hate - groups of people who walk as many a breast as will fill the pavement and either walk slowly meaning you want to overtake but can't or walk towards you in the same manner leaving you nowhere to go.

I get it that some people walk more slowly than others, or sometimes people want to stop and have a chat but it wouldn't hurt to think twice about whether you're in the way before doing it, surely?

2. Blokey racism 

One of the most pernicious things to arise in the past few years has been the idea of the "blokey racist".   Racism has always been around, and perhaps it always will be. All sorts of bigotry have long been dismissed as "just a bit of banter" but recently, there's been the idea that it's OK for politicians and the media to say racist things because "they're only saying what everyone is thinking".

The worst proponent of this, and a person I individually blame for much of the rise of this evil trend is Nigel Farage.  He says racist things on a regular basis; there's no doubt in my mind that he is xenophobic and racist and yet we're supposed to think it's a OK because he does it whilst smoking a fag and drinking a pint.

Differences in political opinion are what drive debate, and debate can drive progress, so I'm all for giving a platform to people with whose views I disagree.
However, there's a line beyond which an expressed view is not longer valid political debate and is simply offensive rhetoric.  Thanks to the things he says, and how he expresses them, Nigel Farage should be banished from our media and ignored, and yet somehow he seems to have become the jolly smiling face of racism and appears on TV and in the media more often than people who could actually make a decent contribution to society.

There was even talk of him being rumoured to do Strictly this year, and nowhere did I see anyone saying "hang on, but isn't he that notorious xenophobe?". So let's stop pretending that racism is a valid political viewpoint and call it what it is.  And let's stop giving racists a platform.

3. Men wearing slip on shoes with tassels on them

Come on.  It's just ridiculous.  Stop it.

4. Dan Brown books

I used to say I had nothing against Dan Brown personally; I used to say I just didn't like his books.  ]
They are unmitigated rubbish and if they didn't exist then all the minutes people spend reading them could instead by spent reading something with some merit.

And then I learned the awful truth.  Dan Brown thinks his books are good.

I was reading about him one day online (don't ask why) and came across an interview in which he said - paraphrasing - that people dislike him because they don't understand what he's doing in his books.

At that point, my dislike of the books spread slightly to become a distaste for him, too.  I felt slightly insulted that he was suggesting that my dislike of his books was because I didn't understand what he's doing.

I understand exactly what he's doing.  He's taking badly-formed characters and paper thin plot lines and milking it for as much money as he can - and that's quite a lot by all counts.  I don't begrudge that of anyone, I just wish he were a little more honest in admitting that's what he's doing.

5. My PE teachers at school

A great teacher can set you up for life.  I attribute my love of maths and science to some great teachers at secondary school, and my love of reading to a particular English teacher who I can remember specifically taught me how to look for subtext and how to interpret words.  I can remember that the feeling of having my eyes opened to books in a way they'd never been before and how suddenly reading became so much more pleasurable than I'd ever previously experienced.

And then at the other end of the scale were the PE teachers.  I was not a fit and active kid.  I was ungainly and uncoordinated.  I remember once being paired in piggy-back races with another kid of similar (large) size. Not having the strength to carry him, we collapsed on the floor and I quite badly hurt my toe.

I was left in no doubt by the PE teachers that I was to blame for that.  They even wrote to my parents to say so.

And so it carried on. The teachers played a part in battering every ounce of physical confidence out of me as much as the rest of the class.  Whenever there was a new complicated move to be demonstrated in the gym, they would always ask me to do it.

Why wouldn't they?  It kept all the sporty kids in the rugby team amused, and they mattered more than I did, obviously.

And so over time, I withdrew from PE at school.  The discomfort of having to put myself through that torture was starting to affect everything else I was doing at school, and the fact I was taken out of PE seemed to make me even more of a target for the teachers' jokes.

If I had to walk back through the events in my life which contributed to just how insecure I feel about my body and my fitness, an unmissable staging post would be the time I had what little confidence I had deliberately deflated.  I'd just done a cross country run and not come last.  I crossed the like actually a little pleased with myself.  The comforting words of encouragement from the head of PE as I walked past him just beyond the line were simply to tell me I could really do with a sports bra.

If I could remove those PE teachers from my life and replace them with teachers as supportive and engaged as the English teacher was, I'd be fitter, healthier and ultimately happier than I am today.

6. Fragrance adverts on the TV

Fragrances are an odd product.  Unlike something you can see, or something you can hear, it's not particularly easy to demonstrate on TV.  The only way to demonstrate the problem is to have those ladies who stand around at the front of department stores squirting fragrance onto anyone who doesn't perform an evasive manoeuvre quickly enough when trying to dash from the door to the lift to get up to the home furnishings floor.

And so anyway, on TV, fragrances are demonstrated by trying to imagine an environment or lifestyle which is likely to appeal to us, and suggesting that in some way it's redolent of the fragrance.  Usually the scenarios played out involve attractive people with some flimsy excuse why they don't have many clothes on.  Quite often they're in water, or flailing around on a bed, but in some cases - the one where the guy sits in the chair wearing nothing but a cup of tea springs to mind - people just take their clothes off for no good reason.

I guess ultimately they're trying to say "if you make yourself smell nice, then you may have more sex" but they can't say that because it's probably not true and certainly not provable so instead they just fling toned naked people around the screen in the hope that we pop to Boots and spend fifty quid on a bottle of smelly stuff.

7.  Boxing

I am not a great fan of sport in general, but some people are and that's grand.  Largely sport is just about running around and either jumping, kicking or throwing things skillfully.  I takes a lot of dedication and determination to get to the top in any sport.  But all those sports are pretty harmless.  There may be the odd sprain or strain on the way, but nobody tends to die in the course of it.

But boxing isn't harmless.  Boxing is about hitting someone hard enough that they become too physically injured to continue.  You can argue that there's a lot of skill and artistry involved, and I don't deny that.  But would we consider taking all that armour off people doing fencing and giving them really sharp swords and telling them to hack enough off each other until one person has to stop.

Of course we wouldn't.
That'd be barbaric, regardless of the swordsmanship involved.

8. Time

Not all time, obviously, as that wouldn't leave us with much - but I'd quite like to remove some bits of time.

Today I had braces fitted, and I'm only a few hours into wearing them and already thinking "is it nearly done yet?" when in reality I'm going to have the bloody things on my teeth for at least two years.

Wouldn't it be great if I could press a big "fast forward" button and just do the fun stuff for the next two years.  I don't mind two years of dinner parties, time with friends and holidays but I don't really want to have to have two years worth of ironing with the braces on.

Of course, the braces would still need the time to do their work, so maybe it's me who's being removed from time in this case rather than the other way around.  Where's a physicist when you need one..?

9. Small talk

When I'm in a shop and I'm trying to buy a bread roll or a potato peeler I'm quite happy have a bit of a back and forth about the product and exchange the requisite pleases and thankyous as we complete the transaction.

But I have no particular desire to talk about the weather, or the shop next door, or the wedding of the daughter of the person serving me.

It's not that I'm in a particular hurry, I just don't find making small talk with strangers particularly socially comfortable and it feels unnecessary when I'm just buying a cup of coffee.  And believe me, people selling coffee are the worst; especially when they know your name.

10. The year 2016

Brexit.  Bowie dying.  President Trump.  Prince dying.  All those other great people dying.

Can't we just forget it happened, try again and if providence will let us keep Bowie, Prince, Victoria Wood and all the others we'll promise to think more carefully before voting in elections...

Friday, 11 August 2017

What's in a name?

I was in Starbucks the other morning, which isn't that unusual.    It's also perfectly normal that they ask your name these days and write it on the cup.

I've never been overly comfortable with the implicit intimacy of someone calling me by name when they are just selling me a coffee, but I've learned to live with it since Starbucks made giving your name a mandatory condition of getting a coffee.

But this morning the thing which particularly rankled me was not - as you may be suspecting - the smiley face he drew next to my name, but rather what the guy serving me did with my name after I'd given it to him.

I'm used to being upsold.  In WHSmith they seem to have moved half the the stock of the store next to the till to try to sell you for a pound whenever you buy some stationery, and in Starbucks I'm quite used to being asked if I'd like a muffin with my morning coffee.  This morning though, the guy used my name in a very friendly tone when trying to sell me a muffin.  It felt uncomfortable and jarring, as though I'd given my name for one purpose and he'd used it for another.  I'd given it to be used to identify my coffee when it arrived at the other end of the counter but he'd taken this as licence to become "all friendly" with me, and try to cajole me into buying a muffin.

I've always had an uneasy and slightly mutually suspicious relationship with my name.  I never really liked the name "Daniel".  Not for me, anyway - I don't find it a particularly ugly or unpleasant name on other people, but never felt it quite fitted me.  I was "Danny" to some people during my teenage years and early twenties, but gradually became "Dan" to pretty much everyone.

I've always found it quite irritating to have someone else dictate to me what I should be known as.  Of course, my parents chose my name when I wasn't able to and at least they chose better than they could've done - I believe that my Mum wanted to call me "Blue" at one point.  But since I've been old enough to know what I'd like to be called, I don't think it's unreasonable of people to respect it.

The catalyst for me changing my name legally to just "Dan" was something quite small, and if I tell the story in isolation it sounds like a large step to take in response to a small annoyance, but in reality I'd been frustrated by being known as "Daniel" for a while, given that it wasn't the name I ever used if given a choice.

At work, the IT team insisted that my email address and company directory entry had to be my full name, and so as I started to work with more people outside my immediate team and even outside the company, more people started referring to me as "Daniel" and I didn't really feel that I could say "actually, please call me Dan" to everyone all the time.  And so I legally dropped the "-iel" from my name.

It was quite a relief, and now all of my official documentation is "Dan" and I'm only ever "Daniel" when someone makes an assumption about my name.  Which people do. I don't really blame them for it.

Generally, if someone (like my new company) makes that assumption, they are quick to correct it, but I did run into some trouble with my GP's surgery.  It's now six years since I first told them that my name is "Dan" and not "Daniel" and just two weeks ago I picked up a prescription with the name "Daniel McNeil" written across the top.  It doesn't really matter too much, but I asked the receptionist to correct it on their system and in return got something of a lecture on the difference between a legal name and a preferred name, and how my GP had to use my legal name.  But then again, the receptionists at GP surgeries are never the most helpful people in my experience.  And in any case, I have an NI number which identifies me uniquely, which my name obviously doesn't - as attested by the number of tweets I used to get for this guy on Twitter.

But whatever someone calls me, I have always had a distaste for people using my name to presume an intimacy which isn't there.  If I call the electricity board to talk about a meter reading, I don't see why the person I'm speaking to and I must start to call each other by name.  It's not that I want to be rude to them, but the whole exchange of names - and even worse then they start to ask "how's your day been so far?" - seems like unnecessary wasting of time.  It's no disrespect to either of us if we speak about the meter reading and then hang up.

I think this general distaste for presumed closeness which underpins my dislike of the Starbucks habit of asking for my name and then drawing a smiley face next to it on the cup.  On second thoughts, maybe that smiley face did annoy me after all...

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Putting a hook on a coconut

This morning, I spent quite a lot of time attaching a brass hook into a coconut.

It's harder than you think.  I tried nails and screws at first but I actual managed to bend a couple of fairly chunky nails whilst trying to hammer them into the coconut, and trying to get a screw in proved to be futile.

I got the end of the coconut quite easily, although it did involve using a fairly chunky saw.  Usually, I'd take the end off completely and then thread some wire into the interior of the coconut through the three black weak spots on the end to hang it, but given I managed to get the end off whilst leaving the flesh intact, I thought it may be interesting to hang it up via something attached to the outside.

In the past, we've had to resort to using power tools to get into a coconut.  That depiction of a coconut hitting the ground, gently bouncing and splitting open in two which was in - I think - a Bounty commercial a few years ago is nothing but a lie.  Getting into a coconut is tough.

And so as I was hammering away, pointless bending nail after nail whilst trying to get one to stick into the coconut, it got me to wondering why on earth we eat coconuts at all.  A long, long time ago someone must've said "I wonder whether the inside of that thing which is really hard to get into is poisonous..?" and hacked their way into a coconut and tried it.  As far as I know, there aren't many animals which eat ripe coconuts in the wild (I think it's mostly insects getting into them before they are ripe) and so I doubt a person watched an animal cracking one open to get inspiration.

Truth is, I don't even really like coconut.  The flavour is OK, but I find the texture quite unpleasant.  There's something a little bit cloying about the flecks of plastic-y flesh you get in coconut which I can't bear to eat.  I don't even like Bountys.

Having said that, coconut cream is one of the best ways I've found to avoid using dairy and tomatoes when making a curry; it makes a great base for the sauce.  Thankfully it doesn't have that weird textural thing going on and tends to disappear into the spices and other flavours which infuse throughout a good curry.

And so, why was I putting a hook on a coconut?  Especially if I wasn't planning to eat the coconut myself.

Well, it's all for the birds, you see.  I read last year that wild birds rather like coconut.  So we tried cutting the end of a coconut and hanging it up, and it went surprisingly quickly.  We tried it several times, having to move from tying them up with string to using metal wire because our plucky squirrels became quite adept at quickly biting through the wire and then eating the coconut on the ground.  In fact our last coconut ended up falling to the ground when a squirrel launched itself from a tree onto the coconut, only to find that the coconut's attachment wasn't strong enough to take the weight of the squirrel too.  Don't worry, the squirrel was fine.  It ate some coconut and then ran off.

Unusually, that coconut was last seen being carried away by a fox in the middle of the night on CCTV.  What a fox is planning to do with a coconut we shall never know, but did appear to carry it away quite proudly.

In the end I resorted to using one of the little black spots at the end of the coconut, and getting a small hole in there into which I managed to screw a brass hook.  It's not ideal, as the opening of the coconut will point downwards once the birds have pecked through the initial layer of flesh, but realistically the coconut will be on the ground being eaten by squirrels at that point, anyway...

Friday, 7 April 2017

Dipping a toe into hot water

I don't usually go near controversial topics.  I keep it light and fluffy and talk about how badly designed toilets are or sometimes about nothing at all.  But today, I'm going to turn a little bit serious and talk about women.  

The thing is, I can feel that even reading that there's been a sharp intake of breath amongst some people reading this.

So, on LinkedIn yesterday I recounted something which happened to me a few years ago.  It's a true story, and I gave only the highlights in a quick status update.  Here it is...

A few years ago, I met a recruiter for coffee.  During the conversation over coffee, he made one or two remarks about a woman who walked into the coffee shop which I thought were inappropriate remarks. 
I didn't say anything at the time, but never worked with the recruiter to either represent me, or to hire for me in any of the roles I've been in since. 
My only regret is that I didn't tell him why.  It feels a little bit too late to say something now, but I wish I'd said at the time that I wouldn't be using him, and why.   
He still calls every six months or so to see how I'm doing and whether he can help with hiring in my team.
It's a dangerous assumption that just because you're speaking with another man, you'll get away with making "laddish" comments about a woman's appearance.   
Those couple of comments have cost that recruiter quite a lot of roles over the years...

It's a brief account of coffee I had with a recruiter a few years ago, back in a previous job.  Meeting recruiters for coffee comes as part of the territory when you're a manager with a team.   You get to know some recruiters across the years, and will tend to stick with them as they move between companies, but there are always new ones who call out of the blue, buy you coffee and explain why you should start using them to fill your roles.  Quite often it comes to nothing, but sometimes you make a new relationship.

And so I was having coffee with a recruiter somewhere, and we were making the normal small-talk at the beginning of the meeting.  "What did you do at the weekend?" "Whereabouts do you live?" - all that kind of fluff that British people tend to start business meetings with.  In the midst of this initial flurry, a woman walked into the coffee shop and the recruiter stared at her, and then made a couple of comments to me about how she looked, with particular reference to her breasts.

I remember feeling uncomfortable with his remarks at the time, but for various reasons I never spoke up to say anything.  I just carried on with the conversation, said goodbye and then never followed up to introduce that recruiter into the process of where I was working at the time.  He still calls me every six months or so to see how I'm getting on.  I've never signed up to use him for hiring - either to represent me when I was looking for a new role, or when I'm managing a team and looking to hire some people into the team.  The truth is, I never will use him.  But I've never plucked up the courage to tell him that.

For the moment, though, let's wind back to the initial incident, and then we'll come back to today and the reactions I received to my post.

Whenever I am speaking to someone in a professional capacity, I am representing my company and they are representing theirs.   So if someone I'm speaking to professionally says something which I find objectionable, for me to call them out on it is to do so on behalf of the company, not just me.  That's something I'd be wary of doing, even if it's something as obviously unacceptable as uninvited sexual comments about a woman.  At the time I was a few years earlier on in my career in management, and I don't think I was quite as sure of myself as I am now.  And so I smiled politely and moved on with the conversation.   I think it's worth making clear that I have absolutely no doubt that the management of the company I worked for at the time would've backed me had I said something; my lack of confidence was in myself rather than in them.

The second reason I didn't say anything was more personal.  I identify unashamedly as a feminist these days, but that's not always been the case.  That's not to say that I've ever actively engaged in nor supported the subjugation of women, but it was something I hadn't really thought about.   Growing up as a white man, the fact that racism and sexism still run through daily life is something which can quite easily pass you by.  And it's to my own shame that I thought that as long as I wasn't being sexist or racist myself, that was enough.

My view changed when I asked a few questions of people I know well enough to speak openly with.  I read a few things which told me just how prevalent sexism still is, and I realised just how naive I'd been.  And so I asked a few women in my life for their own experiences.  I can point to those couple of days as precisely the time when I went from ignorance to anger to determination to help change things.    As a man you have to look to find sexism; as a woman it finds you every day.  It changes the way you walk to the shops to avoid the men on the building site who may whistle at you.  It affects how you feel about taking your car in for service because you're sick of being patronised by the mechanics.  It affects how confident you may feel in applying for a job because the company website feels "a bit blokey".    I can imagine that a woman reading this now will be surprised that this isn't bloody obvious to everyone.  But if you're a man reading this and think I'm overstating things, then talk to some women you know and trust, and ask them to tell you honestly what daily life is like for them.

And so back to the recruiter.  Of course, he didn't say the things loudly enough for the woman to hear.  He had presumed that because he was talking to another man, he could find common ground in ogling women. (Although it's not the point here, I find that quite ironic for another obvious reason, but moving on...)
But I'm sure she noticed him staring at her chest as she walked towards the counter.  I'm sure she noticed she was being watched and judged.

After my post on LinkedIn, quite a few people have told me that I should say something to him next time I speak with him.   But it's going to take effort, as I know it's not going to be easy.  It would've been much easier to say something at or close to the time.  But we are where we are, and I can't go back in time.  My issue is that to me this was something I recall clearly.  To him, it was probably just another meeting which didn't go anywhere and his comments are probably so common-place to him that he won't even recall making them.

The interesting thing isn't what people said in public, though; it's the private reaction I got to my post.  It was three-fold.

Firstly, I got a few messages of support.  People sharing similar stories and saying I did the right thing.  Although a few people also posted those messages in public, and much as they are welcome, they aren't the most interesting response.

Secondly, I got the expected messages telling me that I had over-reacted.  I had at least ten messages - some from people I know and some I don't - telling me that I'm being unfair, and that I shouldn't judge someone on the basis of a few comments made as an aside in the middle of a conversation.  All of these messages were from men, of course.

Thirdly, and perhaps most interestingly, are the number of people who've got in touch to say "were you talking about me? If so, let me explain... you misunderstood me...".  You'd be surprised how many people have got in touch to say this.

I've no intention of naming and shaming.  I'm going to park this and move on now.  I shall leave you with the door policy of a bar in Iceland.  It pretty much applies to who I invite into my life...

Added 10th April 2017:

A little postscript, which I guess I could've seen coming...

After having to spend far-too-much-of-my-time today deleting the more abusive and, shall we say, "unhelpful" comments from the post on LinkedIn, and reading and deleting the similar private messages I've received telling me that, amongst other things "I am only jealous because he saw her first" and "I am only angry because the recruiter fancied her and didn't fancy me" I've deleted the original comment on LinkedIn.

Monday, 20 February 2017

The pain of writing

A little while ago, I wrote about how I have difficult pronouncing a particular consonant.  Many people reading this have probably never heard me speak and so presumed that I had some hugely-apparent speech defect whereas the reaction from people who know me was generally that they had never even noticed which letter I have the problem with.   Fear of feeling self-conscious whenever I speak meant that I never did tell them which letter it was. I still avoid words which start with this particular letter if I have to do public speaking.

Which leads me to wonder if anyone has ever noticed the way I hold a pen.  I am generally right-handed (although I can play pool equally well either way around, amongst other things) and so my strange way to hold a pen isn't an adaption to prevent my left hand trailing over the wet ink as I move across the page. Maybe it's something to do with the fact that my thumbs will bend to a right-angle backwards, but won't bend forwards more than a few degrees...

For years, I presumed that everyone holds a pen as I do.  I love writing with a fountain pen and the tip of my little finger would quite often end up covered in ink; I presumed that happened to everyone.  I didn't really take much notice of how other people hold pens.

Recently, though, my pen holding has started to cause a problem.  On my right ring finger I started to get a little lump in the pad at the tip.  It was tiny to start with - maybe 3mm in diameter.  Recently I've been writing a lot more and it's definitely got bigger.  I write at least a journal entry every day and recently when I wrote a short work of fiction I wrote the first draft of that with a fountain pen on unlined paper.  But the lump in my finger has got considerably bigger.  Bigger to the point that I'm likely to have surgery in the near future to have it removed.

And so, I've been trying to teach myself how to hold a pen differently.  It's much harder than you would imagine.  When I was a teenager, I once tried to teach myself to write with my left hand and that didn't go particular well; I presumed this would be much easier.  I pride myself on having neat handwriting.  It's very rounded and flowing.  My Dad used to have incredibly neat handwriting and as I was growing up, the importance of neat writing was emphasised a lot.  So although I can make legible writing holding the pen between my thumb and index finger it's not as neat as I'd like it to be; I expect that's going to take longer to crack...

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Les gerbilles se sont echappées!

Récemment, nous avons acheté une maison de campagne et nous y passons quelques jours chaque semaine avant de retourner à notre pied-à-terre Londonien.  

Les cochons-d ’Inde voyage avec nous à chaque fois.  Au début, elles n’aimaient pas cela, la cage étant liée, dans leurs esprits, aux voyages chez le vétérinaire et l’indignité qu’elles y subissaient.  Mais quelque mois plus tard, elles avaient embrassé la routine et leurs deux foyers.
En été, les cochons-d ‘Inde habitent dans une dépendance mais en hiver nous mettons leur clapier à la véranda.  La véranda est loin d’être luxueuse mais elle a un toit et du chauffage et constitue un refuge hors pair.

Nous avons également trois gerbilles mais celles-ci restent à la campagne même quand nous allons à Londres parce qu’elles peuvent très bien se débrouiller toute seules pendant deux ou trois jours.  Elles demeurent dans un vivarium en verre surmonté d’une cage en métal.  Les gerbilles a l’état sauvage vivent dans des galeries souterraines ; aussi les nôtres peuvent-elles, a l’intérieur de leur cage, creuser librement des tunnels dans le sable.  Elles passent tout leur temps dans ce labyrinthe à l’abri de la lumière et ne se montrent qu’occasionnellement.

Un jour, j’étais dans la véranda en train de nourrir les cochons-d ‘Inde et j’ai vu une souris qui se précipitait vers le coin.  Je n’étais pas surpris qu’il y ait des souris qui habitent dans la maison ; il est normal que l’on trouve les souris à la campagne, surtout quand il y a des boites de nourriture de gerbille.
Un mois plus tard, l’été est arrivé et il a fallu mettre la cage des cochons-d ’Inde a la dépendance pour qu’elles puissent passer du bon temps au jardin. 
Avant de déménager les cochons-d ‘Inde j’ai décidé de trouver les souris et les mettre au jardin aussi !  J’ai cherché dans le sac dans lequel on stocke la nourriture et il y a deux trous qu’elles ont rongé pour obtenir les délices dedans.  Dans le sac, il y avait un nid fait par les souris.

Soudain, deux petits animaux ont couru très rapidement et se sont cachés au-dessous du clapier des cocons-d ’Inde. 
Je me suis résolu a attraper les souris !   Je me suis couche sur le sol à côté du clapier.   J’ai vu un petit visage et deux yeux qui me regardaient.  J’ai reconnu ce visage.  Les deux animaux n’étaient pas des souris.  Deux gerbilles étaient au sol en train de me regarder.  Elles n’étaient plus dans leur cage !

Donc, nous n’avions pas de souris ! J’ai découvert un petit trou dans le couvercle de leur cage a travers lequel les deux plus petites gerbilles avaient réussi à s’extirper et s’échapper
Elles vivaient une vie très heureuse sur le sol de la véranda avec beaucoup de nourriture à manger sans limite !

Il nous a fallu acheter une cage plus solide pour contenir les gerbilles !

(This post was originally published here in English.  This is not a direct translation of the English but a re-write)

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Green lights all the way

I don't believe that luck is anything other than chance.  It's like playing backgammon - you can get yourself into a position where almost every combination the dice fall in is positive, but you can never actually control how the dice are going to fall.

I was walking home from Liverpool Street station the other evening, and literally every crossing I changed to show a green man just as I walked up to it.  Every single one.  A bit like that annoying advert with James Corden, except I didn't ask anyone to "just call me Mr Green Light".

It wasn't my only stroke of luck during the day.  Earlier in the day, I'd been giving a serious announcement to my team in the office.  All standing around in a circle in the break-out space in the office, it was after I'd finished speaking the MD was talking that I realised that my phone wasn't on silent, that I was expecting a call and that my ringtone is currently the theme music from Strictly, starting with a bit "Hoooooooo!" noise at the beginning.  Even though the MD was talking, my attention was actually on my phone rather than her, willing it not to ring right at that moment.  Fortunately, it didn't.

Good luck must run out eventually.  Or more precisely, the random order in which good and bad things happen means that every run of good things is only going to be finite in length.  Like tossing a coin - every run of heads is going to be broken at some point.

I feel like there should be some metaphor here.  There isn't.  I was just struck by how many green lights I saw on the walk home the other evening. Nothing more.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Avoiding the obvious

Having a new house to sort out took away much of my free weekend time, and so I've not got through as many books this year as I would like to have done even though all the trips to Warrington gave me plenty of time on trains and in hotel rooms with nothing much else to do.

Hopefully in 2017 I should get a bit more reading done.  An upcoming new job is going to mean fewer train journeys, but a shorter commute is going to mean more time at home to while away the hours with a good book.

I've picked six books which I read in 2016(1)

So let's start at the bottom, shall we?(2)

Tales from the Dance Floor
Craig Revel Horwood

Don't be shocked that I read such things.  I think it's a mistake to presume that someone who reads a lot must read the highest literature.(3)  A lot of time spent on trains - and in a previous job, planes - makes me want something to keep the mind and the pages turning as time passes me by more slowly than normal.

I really rather enjoyed All Balls and Glitter(4), which was Craig Revel Horwood's previous autobiographical volume and so when I saw on Twitter that there was a follow-up I decided to hunt it down and use it to make a train journey disappear.  

It was actually harder to find that I thought it would be.  I had presumed that a new book by someone associated with the Strictly leviathan would be stacked near the door of every WHSmiths branch, especially at stations where people usually want something light and fluffy to read.(5)  I even went to Foyles to try to track it down, and spent quite some time going back and forth between the "Dance" and "Television" sections convinced that I must missed it somewhere on a shelf between the two.

Maybe I should've heard the sound of warning bells given how hard the book was to find but eventually I did the unthinkable and ordered it from Amazon.  I do use Amazon for many, many other things - yet I rarely buy books online.  

For me, it's nice to meander along the shelves and see the book before buying it.  How does it feel in my hand? How does it feel to flick through the pages?  I love cold, blue screens for doing research and reading short articles, but there's still nothing quite like a warm, yellow book to tell a story.

After a few pages, the first impression wasn't good.  It was obvious that the prose just didn't flow in the way the prose had done in the first volume.  The content wasn't bad - it certainly wasn't in the same category of drivel as a Dan Brown book, for instance(6) - but the way it was told felt like disjointed, uninteresting sentences falling one after the other like dominoes.  There was no change of pace, no pauses for contemplation and no dizzying whirlwind evenings played out on the page.  

All the moves were there, but there was no feeling in the stiff dance through the pages.  

Maybe he wrote it in a rush or maybe he was contractually obliged to write a second volume without real motivation to do so.  Either way, it was dangerous to have my expectations set so high. 

Spectacles.  A memoir.
Sue Perkins

Not all memoirs are bad; some are a joy to read.  I actually read this before the Craig Revel Horwood volume took away my trust in expectations and so I didn't really have many before I started reading.  

Unlike the previous book, this one was everywhere.  Every time I went into WHSmiths at Euston whilst waiting for the train to Warrington its white cover and striking portrait stared out at me.  But at twenty quid for the hardback, I wasn't so keen to rush in.  Eventually, when it was part of an offer I bought it and took it on the train with me.

Never have I smiled so much throughout a book.   I obviously knew of Sue Perkins before reading the book - and not just since Bake Off, although I do also love Bake Off(7) - and this isn't one of those autobiographies where people spill the beans on previous lovers to sell a few extra copies; it's much better than that and all the better for it. 

One moment, involving a bucket, made me splutter out loud on the 0930 Euston to Glasgow Central.  Read the book, and you'll know when you get there. Sometimes I should trust my gut and buy a book when I first see it rather than waiting an age to pick it up.  

Mary Beard

I bought this book quite early.  Mary Beard is wonderful, and her previous books have been the most engaging and entertaining journeys to Ancient Rome I've ever taken.  But they were short.  And SPQR is not a short book.  I have a stack of books(8) I've not yet read and whenever I finish one I return to the shelf and select a new one to start reading.  Although there's no ordering to the books I select; I rarely select the one which has been on the shelf the longest and certainly never select it on those grounds alone.  Choosing a new book to read is like selecting a pair of socks.  It's a product of mood and feeling.  Where will I be going and what will I be doing?  

Such a long book on such a weighty subject never quite made it to the top of the pile and so it gathered quite a lot of dust before I finally decided to pick it up and get going.

I saw Mary Beard talking about the book at an event before I started reading it.   Whenever she talks, she is so engaging; the fact that her enthusiasm is so obviously real makes it heartwarming and contagious.  This wasn't the only time I'd seen Mary Beard talk, but as I sat there listening to her talk about why she started with Cicero and what she really thought of Rome's foundation myth I could feel the book on the shelf at home on the other side of London calling distantly to me.  I picked it up to start reading the next day.(9)

Mary Beard has a wonderful knack of presenting Rome as seen through the eyes of people rather than through the telescope of history.  The world she conjures up feels real and complete,  rendered even more imaginable by her reassuring reluctance to fill gaps in source material with unannounced guesswork. 

Just how the best celebrity memoirs avoid the lurid stories of kiss and tell, the Julio-Claudian Emperors' excesses aren't played for thrills here.  We all know they were pretty perverted in both senses of the word but this book shows the history of Ancient Rome to be so much more than Eastenders in togas.  This book is definitely going to be going into my roster of books I read time and time again and I an sure I'll discover something new each time.

What Belongs To You
Garth Greenwell

On one occassion, I arrived at Euston for my weekly trip up to Warrington and realised I'd forgotten to pick up a book from the pile and so needed to find something in WHSmiths.  This cover jumped out at me almost as much as the fact that the book didn't seem that long and so I could probably get into it on a train journey. (10) I wasn't aware of the short story which had been reworked into the first section of the book, and so had no idea what I was going to be reading.  

I certainly wasn't expecting the tale of a dysfunctional relationship between an ex-pat American living in Bulgaria and a local prostitute. 

It's certainly quite a gritty and grubby tale at times - I wouldn't recommend it as bedtime reading for your kids - but it does manage to draw two characters together and apart many times without any of the twists and turns feeling forced for dramatic purposes. (11) 

I did leave it with the lingering question though of whether this was actually a made up tale.  Either the author has a very good imagination or there's a little more to this tale than simple fiction. (12)

The Scarlet Gospels
Clive Barker

I read a lot, but I don't tend to read many book reviews and so quite often when there's a new book out by one of my favourite authors, the first time I am aware of it  is when I am buying it.

I have read The Hellbound Heart a few times and always thought that the Hellraiser films didn't do justice to the book.(13)  They took away the subtlety and replaced it with guts, gore and sex to increasing degrees as the film series rumbled on. The decline of the film series into nonsense almost stopped me from buying this book but Clive Barker has never let me down so far (14) and so I decided to pick it up from WHSmiths at Euston and give it a go.  

If inhumanity is presented constantly, then it ceases to shock and in their desire to be gorier and bloodier than before each of the films seemed to neglect to portray the backdrop of humanity against which the inhuman story was played out.  The story may quickly make its way to Hell but its footsteps always lead back to the real world. (15)

It would've been easy for Clive Barker to sit back and accept the royalties he's no doubt being paid for the continuing roster of films or to simply write something which continued the gore fest in increasingly ridiculous ways but it's nice to seem an author take their creation back with such grace and dexterity. (16)

The Railways
Simon Bradley

Some books have to sell themselves to me and some are just obviously one day going to end up sitting on my shelf waiting for me to pick them up and open them for the first time.  I walked past this book myriad times in various railway stations before finally buying it and getting around to reading it.  It was so obvious to me that I'd end up buying and reading this book that I didn't feel the need to rush into it; one day it would just find its way onto my bookshelf of its own accord. (17)

This book was pretty weighty, but thankfully split into relatively distinct sections so would lend itself quite easily to a chapter or two in bed of a Saturday morning before getting up to face the weekend.  I've always have a fascination with railways, as I've written about previously, and I'm often fearful of reading books on subjects I love.

I try to make my life as evidence-based as possible and a necessary part of that is that sometimes my views change when I get new information.  But being rational doesn't stop my heart from attaching itself to enjoyable beliefs.  I yearn for the days when I believed in Santa. (18)

So it's always risky to open up something you hold dear and allow someone to give you new information.  My love of railways felt pretty safe, though.  In fact the book was about trains much more than it was about the railways they run on but it's entertaining to imagine yourself rattling along locked in a compartment with strangers who may be about to try to rob you or try to fleece money from you.  The Beeching map does get a reprint; and at the time I was yearning for more detail but sometimes the greatest pleasure in life can be achieved by avoiding the temptation of the obvious.

And so there you have it, it seems that I like to read things which avoid the obvious and aren't lurid.  Who knew I was so sophisticated in my taste..?


1.  Even though my reading time was limited I did read many more than six books.  Over sixty in fact.

2. I wrote this as the kind of thing CRH would say as a judge on Strictly but then became concerned it sounded homophobic.  Which it's not meant to be.  Maybe I should take it out in case people hate me for it?

3. I've read a couple of French novels, a book on advanced number theory and some poetry this year too, you know so it's not all been trashy nonsense.  Although there has been quite a lot of trashy nonsense in there, I guess. I'm not ashamed.

4. Best. Title. Ever.

5. I've never understood why it's presumed that those people getting on a train want something light to read, but those people getting on planes want something very thinky and business-oriented given the usual selection at airports.  I prefer "light and fluffy" on both.

6. I once started reading a Dan Brown book at an airport and it was _so_  fucking awful that I had to throw it away before getting on the place.  Fourteen hours to Tokyo with nothing to do was better than reading that drivel.  Sorry about my language by the way, but that's what you get for reading the footnotes.

7. On the BBC obviously.  It won't be the same on Channel 4.  

8. Anyone who's ready earlier posts will note that my time is now split between London and the countryside so for the pedants (and who else reads footnotes other than pedants?) I actually have two piles of books, one in each place.

9.  I am starting to worry that this isn't actually true, but for the purposes of dramatic narrative let's presume it is.  It was certainly pretty soon afterwards in any case.

10. I find that shorter books tend to have faster starts - I guess their whole pace tends to be quicker - so they are easier to get into on a train where I need something engaging straight away to take my mind off the journey.  It's the same reason I tend to start reading a new book just before a flight, so by the time the flight comes around I'm already invested in the narrative and so can close myself in the book more easily.

11. I am away that - if indeed this story is fiction and not autobiographical - the entire thing is made up for dramatic purposes.

12. I am actually quite glad this question hasn't been answered.  There was a great book called "A Million Little Pieces" which was presented as fact, and then exposed as fiction and the whole episode rather ruined the enjoyment of the book for me. A  little mystery is not a bad thing.

13. Given how few films I have seen in my life, I realise that it's odd that the Hellraiser films are there on the list.  But they are, and I rather enjoyed the first one, although I still preferred the version of the story in print.

14. I'm trying to think of this is actually 100% true.  I certainly can't think of a book of his I've been disappointed with at the time of writing. If I do think of one, I'll update this footnote accordingly.

15. I am aware that footsteps made by someone walking forward lead forward rather than backwards, but you know what I mean...

16. I thought it'd be fun to put in a little note at this point about whether Clive Barker is left-handed or right-handed.  The internet won't tell me, and although he doesn't appear on the many lists of "famous left-handed people" I read through I don't want to presume that he is therefore right-handed.  For some reason, he seems like the kind of person who would be left-handed, doesn't he?

17.  I mean here that I would eventually buy the book.  This isn't a euphemistic way to say that I stole the book. I most emphatically did not steal it.  I bought it from the little shop at Warrington Bank Quay station.

18. A recent conversation with my mother revealed that she doesn't think I ever believed in Santa, and come to think of it I don't remember a time when I believed in Santa either, but maybe I would be too little to remember it.  Anyway, my point isn't specifically about Santa so this doesn't really matter.  But then again, I guess if it did really matter, I'd have written it up there in the main text and not down here in the footnotes.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

La mort

I don't dwell too long on the thoughts of mortality which seem to come my way so much more frequently than they did when I was younger.  I don't consider myself old, yet I have reached the point in life where the remainder of my life no longer seems to stretch out in front of me like the endless path beyond the horizon I would amble along in my youth.

Recently, amongst the very old and gnarled apple trees in the garden, we planted a young quince tree.  It's about eight feet tall, and not yet fruiting.  It will get there eventually, but I won't see it reach the size and character of its neighbours even though I hope some day to be able to candy its quinces for Christmas.

When you're young, death for most people is a mercifully distant thing.  You know it exists and you see the impact it has on people around you, but until it starts to creep closer towards you, I don't think you fully understand just how final the end is when it comes.

Until the past few years, I'd only really seen one death close enough to me to full its full impact.  There had been bereavements of which I'd been aware but the first funeral I ever went to was that of a close family member.  I'd only ever felt distant tremors before, and now the firm ground on which I stood was being shaken by something much closer to home.  In the past few years, the reaper has appeared much closer to home on a couple of occasions (written about previously here and here).

The more times you see death strike people down close to you the more you realise that it really does come to us all in the end.  There is no avoiding it.  Every one of our paths will run out eventually.  Every one of us will one day take their very final step.

I've never thought of death as a subject to be avoided.  Of course I'd avoid it around people who've recently suffered a bereavement but only for fear of interrupting their grieving process not for fear of the subject itself.   There's a taboo surrounding death which has fallen away from subjects such as faith, race and sex in recent years.  But despite the shift towards a more open and liberal society in recent years, it seems that there's still a curtain hung around the subject of death which few dare to pull back for the world to see.

I don't find the fact that we'll all die someday as worthy of mourning; I'll let others mourn me when I'm gone rather than spending the finite time before then lamenting the inevitable.  I see the realisation that life is finite as a positive motivator to spend life well.  It's a limited resource and it seems a shame to waste it.  So let's remember those who have gone fondly, be sorrowful that we no longer get to make new memories but remember that it's not disrespectful to continue to live a full life when someone close to you is gone.  

When my time finally comes, I want to look back with as few regrets as possible.  
Living life well is the only way to make that possible.